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Ulster and Clermont to meet in the Heineken final Posted over 4 years ago

So , here in the Northern Hemisphere , this weekend heralds the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup, the biggest and best club tournament in this part of the world.

It is worth reflecting briefly on how the four protagonists reached the semis.

Edinburgh had an outstanding and unexpected victory against a very subdued and , by their standards, very orthodox Stade Toulouse. Whilst not wishing to take anything away from the victors, it was worrying to see a Toulouse side play in such a conservative manner.

Ulster had a famous victory away to Munster. No possession , no territory , they defied the beliefs that without these basics it is impossible to win. A fantastic defensive effort , admittedly against a predictable Munster collision-based attack , helped see them through.

The general feeling is that Ulster , bolstered by their South African contingent, will be too strong all round for Edinburgh and that the Scottish district will find it difficult to raise their game again to the same level.

Leinster travel to France having put a poor Cardiff Blues side to the sword in the quarter-final. They stated at the beginning of their campaign that they wished to be the best running and passing side in the competition. This , of course , was greeted with some derision in this part of the world where the approach to winning games is based on less subtle skills.

They face a star-studded Clermont Auvergne side who squeezed the lifeblood from Saracens. A formidable physical presence up front backed by a back division full of French Internationals , supplemented with Lee Byrne of Wales and Sivivatu of New Zealand , Clermont should be the side that can adapt the most to the shifting demands of a game. Leinster will have to find a way to manufacture some front foot ball to fashion the type of game they prefer.

What fascinates me , however , is the mindset of the respective coaches and teams on the day. The thought of being eighty minutes away from the final can play some bizarre tricks with the concept of thinking clearly under pressure !

The focus of attention on the task at hand ( i.e. in the moment ) and the application of the Red/Blue thinking used by the All Blacks in the lead up to and during the World Cup will be critical. Dwelling on potential distractions and diversions can limit performance on the day. Focusing too much on the analysis of the opposition rather than establishing a positive mood on how your team will perform by coaches can also put players on the back foot.

If too much is mentioned about the occasion then the concept of playing as the situations arise and demand takes second place. This is not a recipe for positivity but rather unnecessary caution – in my experience in these matters – a recipe for under-performing.

The make-up of teams is divided loosely into the areas of Technical , Tactical , Physical , Lifestyle and Mental. Whilst I acknowledge all will have an impact on the day , there’s no doubt in my mind that the mental side carries the greatest weight and importance. Those players who , in the fierce cauldron of battle, can remain clear-headed enough to process all the information flying around into a clarity of accurate performance will be on the winning side.

This is the simplicity and size of the challenge ahead this weekend for the semi-finalists. Can they defeat the occasion first , before the games kick off ,and then the opposition on the day in whatever manner is most appropriate or will they put up the conservative shutters and not look to identify opportunities when and where they arise ?

We shall see ! My heart would like to see an all Irish final but my head says it will be Ulster v Clermont Auvergne for the final.

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Brian Ashton has credentials as both player and coach. He started playing rugby at Lancaster Royal Grammar School and progressed through age and club grades. While Brian played representative rugby for Lancashire, England North, and the Barbarians it is as a coach that he has made the more significant impact. He has coached at club and international level since 1980, including 2 years as England head coach. Brian is currently Technical Director of Rugby at Fylde RFC in Lancashire and is widely regarded as one of the most visionary coaches in the global game.

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